Our first taste of winter weather was timed perfectly, just as the last of the fall foliage has finally dropped.
We’re left scurrying to finish the last fall projects like raking leaves and cleaning gutters. And any other lingering tasks like winterizing gardening tools and machines, collecting and storing tomato cages and plant supports, pots and planters. And when the winter strikes in earnest we’ll just have to call it done enough until spring.
Fortunately, the hardy plants; perennials, trees and shrubs do a pretty good job of putting themselves to bed at season’s end.
Plants that are hardy in our area start preparing in late summer as the days shorten, slowing growth and storing reserves. Glorious fall foliage displays are just a flamboyant farewell, as they hunker down for survival. Those truly adapted will not be tricked by a few warm days, nor the false spring of a January thaw.
Of course, we gardeners have been known to push the limits, which can result in a few losses. We may, or may not, be ok with the possibility, depending on our attachment or investment in the plants.
We can provide some protection from winter hazards. Extreme cold, drying winds, de-icing chemicals; breakage from heavy snows, ice, and snow-removal activities; as well as the browsing of hungry wildlife.
Roses and woody perennials such as butterfly bush (Buddleia), lavender (Lavandula) and Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) often don’t go fully dormant with the approaching winter. Let these plants protect themselves by leaving their old stems standing for maximum winter survival.
A thick layer of wood chip mulch can help in many situations.
Shallow-rooted plants such as Japanese maples and rhododendrons can be vulnerable. Hardy plants can tolerate frozen roots, but cycles of repeated freezing and thawing can cause damage, much like food that has been in and out of the freezer too many times—the cell structure is damaged. The soil is a great moderator of the extremes, and mulching enhances the effect by insulating and maintaining moisture.
Late-planted perennials are at risk for frost heave. Because the plant hasn’t had a lot of time to develop a good network of roots to anchor it into the soil, the freeze/thaw cycles can push it up out of the ground, in the same action that breaks up road surfaces during thaws. The exposed roots and plant crowns are then damaged by wind and further temperature swings.
Plants that are grafted near the soil level, such as many hybrid roses, are also at risk. Grafts can be damaged by extremes, causing the premium plant to be lost and the vigorous, typically less attractive rootstock plant to replace it. In this situation, the lower portion of the plant can be covered with a layer of loose, coarse-textured mulch that will not mat down under the weight of snow. Cut evergreen boughs laid over the top will add any extra layer of protection until weather warms in spring.
Winter-starved animals can be persistent and hard to keep away from your plants. Sometimes the spring snow melt reveals that rabbits have eaten the bark at the snow level, voles and mice may have feasted unnoticed under the protection of snow, and deer have browsed the upper branches.
Scent-based repellents can deter browsing. Granulated product is easiest to use and may be reapplied periodically to maintain effectiveness over time.
Twiggy plants can be surrounded individually with rabbit fence or chicken wire. Tree wrap can protect bark from frost cracking and nibbling mice, though it should be removed in spring.
And take some solace that our winters also take a toll on garden pests and diseases, moderating our challenges for the next season.